The Unforgotten War

By Robert Presser on November 13, 2014

As we approached the 100th anniversary of the First World War, there was a conscientious effort among governments and academics to revisit the causes of that war and reflect on the lessons of its aftermath.  Unlike the Second World War, there are no more witnesses alive to recount their recollections, no longer do veterans of the Great War march in Remembrance Day processions.  One hundred years on, history is making a U-turn to explore the echo of WWI, the unforgotten war.

I call it the unforgotten war because for at least a half-century its memory was suppressed by the shadow of WWII.  How did that come to pass?  My theory is that since the second half of the twentieth century was dominated by America’s ever-presence around the globe, The U.S. also dominated the way history was written and re-told to subsequent generations.  WWII offered the benefit of total victory; Germany and Japan were invaded, gutted, occupied and recompiled into participatory Western democracies.  Fascist evil had been vanquished, and an ascendant opponent in the form of the Soviet Union provided a DC-Comic like us-versus-them framework against which to promote the story of American-led victory.  America’s participation in WWI was late, consequential but not pivotal.  The European Allies did the heavy lifting, fighting and dying in the war against Germany.  One can argue that the French char, or tank, was more important to breaking German lines than the green American troops in late 1917.  In the end, Germany was defeated, but not invaded.  German soldiers marched home from the front to cheering crowds heralding their return from a patriotic war that saw the end of three empires, but not Bismark’s post-1870 unified territory.  More damage was done to Germany at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 than on the battlefields of war.  This narrative, far from representing total victory, was seen as a failure as the unresolved quest of German expansionism was allowed to morph into fascism and the resumption of hostilities one generation later.  The war to end all wars was, in fact, a prologue.  Americans drew no satisfaction from that failure, and they recast Remembrance Day into Veteran’s Day and shifted its focus to their successes of WWII.  We celebrated D-Day with fanfare every year, far more pleasant than somber recollections of the Battle of the Somme.

Yet the shadow of WWI looms large over current events.  ISIL reminds us that the Arab tribes were promised Greater Syria by Lawrence of Arabia in exchange for their fighting against the Ottomans – today’s jihad is based on one of the last century’s most public broken promises.  The Kurds, split among three nation-states today, will soon attempt to create a Kurdistan in the image of what was not granted to them at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.  Putin’s Russia conjures up imagery of the Czarist Empire as it seeks to reclaim piecemeal the lands it once controlled; Crimea, eastern Ukraine, perhaps the Baltics and Poland are next.   America, exhausted by expensive wars in a region who’s history it did not learn nor respect, is once again a reluctant warrior and isolationist tendencies are on the rise.  At the outset of war in 1914, Woodrow Wilson asked Americans to remain “neutral in their minds and their hearts”.  It is possible that 2016’s candidates for the Presidency may use that cry to further their campaigns with a weary electorate.  The unforgotten war obliges us to live its legacy in today’s headlines.

The Great War also gave us modern mechanized warfare.  The Prussian War of 1870 was fought on horseback with single shot rifles, swords, cannons and little automation, though the Gatling gun had already been invented.  In the intervening decades, rapid fire automation, mechanized guidance systems and powered flight arrived on the scene and were available to be weaponized.  Yet, as the war began, cavalries marched off to war, simple rifles predominated and the horse remained an important battlefield tool.  Four years later, fighter aircraft engaged in massive dogfights, machine guns were mobile killing machines in the air and on the ground, tanks climbed over trenches and massive, mobile artillery could throw shells over 20 miles away, like Germany’s Big Bertha rail guns. All of these tools combined to create death rates never before seen in warfare; it was not uncommon for attacking forces to lose up to 10,000 troops an hour as they attempted to claim mere meters on the battleground. While the intensity of the killing and the sophistication of the weaponry have massively increased over the past century, these are the essentially the same weapons systems that meet on battlefields today.

The Great War even had its Armageddon weapon, the super-battleship known as the Dreadnought-class.  The Dreadnought, a British warship launched in 1906, became the prototype for a naval arms race between Britain and Germany that culminated with ships possessing 12-inch guns capable of throwing shells up to 13 kilometers with accuracy, a remarkable feat for the day.  These ships were the tactical nuclear weapons of their time, but ironically, just like nuclear weapons, they were ultimately more for show than for use.  Nuclear bombs have only been dropped twice, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to provoke the Japanese surrender that ended WWII.  Similarly, there was only one clash of these warships at the 1916 Battle of Jutland, and the results were inconclusive.  Just like today, some weapons systems are best kept for show and used as a deterrent rather than an active force.

Teaching the young about the Great War is a monumental challenge and responsibility.  Understanding the repercussions of that war provides students with a framework to understand today’s conflicts and creates a bridge to the past on which to build a greater appreciation of 20th century history.  There are grainy moving pictures of soldiers going over the tops of trenches, images of the ground pockmarked with the undulations of artillery barrages and the carnage of human remains that surrounds them.  In no other conflict since then has the brutality and intimacy of trench warfare been repeated and the extent of the violence each side imposed on the other should be exposed so as to be suitably abhorred.  We teach high school students about the 1763 Treaty of Paris that ceded New France to the British and set us on the path towards the creation of British North America and later, Canada; but it was on the battlefields of Europe in WWI that Canada truly became a nation.  For young Canadians, this is a lesson of nation-building worth learning and is our most enduring legacy of the unforgotten war.

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